Masters of Theory and Its Relevance to the History of Economic Thought (1)

By Moore, Gregory | History of Economics Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Masters of Theory and Its Relevance to the History of Economic Thought (1)


Moore, Gregory, History of Economics Review


Warwick, A. Masters of Theory. Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 2003. ISBN 0 226 87374 9 (cloth); 0 226 87375 7 (pb). US$95.00 (cloth); US$32.00 (pb).

1 Introduction

One of the most important texts to be published in 2003 that is of relevance to the sub-discipline of the history of economic thought was written not by an historian of that sub-discipline, but by an historian of mathematical science. Andrew Warwick's Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics has nonetheless been largely overlooked by historians of economic thought, and, for this reason, a lengthy critical review of this work is warranted. Warwick has written what many mathematical purists would incorrectly dismiss as a 'contradiction in terms', namely, a cultural history of mathematics. He demonstrates that the cultural processes that governed the way in which Cantabrigian undergraduates sitting for the Mathematical Tripos initially came to grips with their subject matter had some bearing on the mathematical product that eventually appeared on the published page. The mathematical theorems, lemmas, proofs and applications were, in other words, not spun out of the aether by unadulterated minds sitting in clean Euclidean space, but were indirectly the product of the way in which the raw undergraduates were originally transformed into practising mathematicians, or, more usually, journeyman scholars or professionals with a mathematical bent. Such a cultural interpretation of an intellectual product is now pretty much standard in the history of physics, biology and economics, but it still provides a little frisson when applied to the field of mathematics, which is normally feted as the purest of all the sciences. This intellectual thrill is further spurred by Warwick's patent rejection of the usual amateurish route taken in these sorts of studies. Specifically, instead of making a few lame references to Thomas Kuhn's tired concept of a paradigm before delivering some sweeping statements that are supported by no more than one or two protocol statements drawn from secondary references, Warwick has undertaken a breathtaking amount of original research to reconstruct the actual pedagogical machinery used to train students at Cambridge. He, of course, draws upon Kuhn (how could he not?), but he quickly moves on from the well-worn references to 'incommensurability' and 'tacit knowledge' to the far more difficult historiographical exercise of making his case.

The end result is a near seamless narrative of the history of Cantabrigian mathematical training that is accessible, with a little effort, to those from the wider history community who are not mathematically inclined, or at least not adept at the idiosyncratic style of mathematics that was deployed in the Victorian period. (Try reading James Clerk Maxwell's, 1873, Electricity and Magnetism!). This accessibility is particularly important for historians of economic thought, since most of the Cambridge economists from this period were initially trained in the Mathematical Tripos (from Whewell to Fawcett to Marshall to Keynes) and yet, presumably because of the arcane nature of this Tripos, there is still no systematic study of how this early training guided their speculations within the field of economics. There are, of course, scholarly accounts of the mathematical training of specific Cambridge economists, such as in Peter Groenewegen's A Soaring Eagle. Alfred Marshall 1842-1924 (1995, chapter 4), and good, but brief, descriptions of the Mathematical Tripos in larger works on the history of mathematical economics, as presented in Roy Weintraub's A History of Mathematical Economics (2002, chapter 1). But these and similar histories do not consider the influence of the early mathematical training on each and every Cambridge economist (see pp. 84-5 below for a comprehensive list of the Cambridge economists who completed the Mathematical Tripos). …

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